The Fenian Rising of 1867 had proved to be a pitiful anti-climax in Ireland, where the efforts of the IRB were largely stillborn due to the actions of informers. But the rebellion was not confined to Ireland, any more than the IRB was. In this entry, I’ll note the three major Fenian operations in Britain that took place in 1867, before we move on to ever further shores.
Before the rebellion had even begun in Ireland, Fenian circles in Britain were attempting to do their part. Before the original date of the rising in early February – the initial rebellion that would fizzle out with some small operations in the south of Kerry – the IRB sections in Lancashire drew together an extremely ambitious plan.
Their idea was to attack the castle in the town of Chester, which housed an armoury with extensive weapon supplies. Utilising surprise, he Fenians would seize the guns, then capture a train to take them to Holyhead, before the trifling task of stealing a boat to take the guns over the Irish Sea to Dublin, where hopefully the rebellion would be in full swing. One of the Fenians engaged on this rather hare-brained scheme was a 21 year old travelling salesman from Mayo named Michael Davitt, soon to be a figure of major importance in Irish revolutionary politics.
The British Fenians were as susceptible to informers as their Irish counterparts, and the Chester Castle operation was betrayed by one of James Stephens’ most trusted operators in the area: when the Fenians arrived at Chester Castle on the 11th February, they found it strongly held by additional British reinforcements. The attack didn’t go ahead.
From there, the British Fenians could only stand and watch the events in Ireland from a powerless position, aside from their ongoing activities of recruitment, fundraising and the occasional small-scale raid for arms. After the limited uprising in March faded away to nothing, the remains of the leadership in Ireland, those not in prison or actively on the run, were forced to re-evaluate.
One of these was Thomas Kelly, the Irish American veteran of the Union Army who was the closest thing the Fenians had to a singular leader, though the extent of his authority over the organisation in general was dubious. Together with another veteran of the Civil War, Cork-based Fenian Thomas Deasy, Kelly travelled to Manchester in September of 1867 as part of the effort to reorganise. Manchester was a prime Fenian recruiting ground, with a substantial Irish emigrant population. While travelling to a meeting of fellow IRB members, both Kelly and Deasy were betrayed by an informer, and arrested by the British authorities.
One week afterwards, on the 18th of September, both Kelly and Deasy were among a group of six prisoners being transferred, under police escort, from the local courthouse to Belle Vue Gaol. As the van passed under a railway arch it found its progress impeded by a man with a gun: when the van stopped, somewhere in the region of thirty to forty additional men appeared from hiding places nearby, nearly all armed. It was an audacious and daring rescue attempt by the local Fenian movement, who quickly put the unarmed police to flight.
Unfortunately, that’s largely where the heroism ceased. The Fenians found themselves unable to open the locked van, which contained an additional policeman named Brett, a Sergeant. Brett refused the demands to open up, but had the bad luck to be staring through the keyhole of the van’s door just as one of the attackers was firing his gun at the other end. After fishing the keys from his pockets and getting them outside, the prisoners were freed. The group dispersed rapidly before any counter move by the police could be organised.
The “Manchester Outrages”, as they became known, brought a furious response from local authorities, as Brett had been the first member of the police in the area to be killed in the line of duty. Irish neighbourhoods were the subject of brutal raids, but Kelly and Deasy both avoided recapture, eventually spirited to Liverpool and safely abroad, though they both lived out the rest of their lives in relative obscurity in America. They were the lucky ones.
There were many arrests made, random in some cases: infamously, one Royal Marine of Irish origin, Thomas Maguire, who happened to have been nearby the incident, was swept up in the prosecutions. The resulting inquiries were heavily slanted from the start: the prisoners were brought into the court handcuffed, and a military presence was also noted by the defence team. When more formal proceedings went ahead in late October, it was five men who bore the brunt of the judicial retaliation. Four of them, William Philip Allen, Michel Larkin, Michel O’Brien and Edward O’Meagher Condon, were admitted Irish nationalists: Maguire was the odd one out. O’Meagher Condon admitted to orchestrating the attack but claimed he was not present at its actual execution: the other three gave memorable speeches from the dock protesting British rule in Ireland, and the authority of the court to try men who also happened to be American citizens.
The verdict was guilty for all five, and the sentence death. This was later commuted in O’Meagher Condon’s case due to his American citizenship, and overturned for Maguire, pardoned after the evidence given against him was easily disproven. The other three, under the supervision of a large military presence, went to the gallows on the 22nd of November 1867, becoming the “Manchester Martyrs” of nationalist memory, their actions and deaths one of the most important touchstones in the evolution of republican feeling in Ireland. In murals, in song and and in political action, the events of that day reverberated for the next several decades, pinpointed as vital moments for Irish history by figures as diverse as Charles Stewart Parnell and Karl Marx. The reaction of the Irish communities in Britain and the Irish at home – with funeral processions, large public masses and other demonstrations of solidarity – inflamed both the nationalist mindset and the revulsion of the British, with the divide between the Irish Sea widening even as the Fenian threat was dying down.
There remained one more major “action” to speak of involving the Fenians, Britain and the year 1867. In November two Fenians, Richard O’Sullivan Burke and Joseph Casey, were arrested in London, accused of treason and assault after helping to buy arms for the Fenian movement. They were remanded in custody, awaiting trail, at Clerkenwell Prison in the middle of the city.
On the 12th of December, a group of Fenians attempted to free the two, by blowing a hole in the prison wall during an exercise period: the bomb failed to explode. The next day, they tried again, this time with a barrel of gunpowder as the explosive force. The bomb went off this time, blowing a gigantic 60 foot gap in the prison wall, but all to no avail: once again, informers had the authorities well forewarned, and the prisoners were locked in their cells at the time. There was a terrible effect though: the extent of the explosion killed 12 people in nearby tenement houses, as well as injuring up to a hundred more.
Eight men were arrested over the incident: two turned informer and were released, two more were released before trial, and three more were found not guilty. The guilt fell solely on Fenian Michael Barrett, who had compelling evidence that he wasn’t even in London that day: regardless, he went to the gallows, holding the unwelcome honour of being the last man publicly hanged in Britain.
The combination of the Manchester attack and the Clerkenwell explosion all contributed to a phase of anti-Irish hysteria among the public and press of Britain. The constant and large public demonstrations from Irish communities caused further panic, and then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli felt obligated to temporarily ban such gatherings. Throughout Britain, an anti-Irish sentiment settled in among the population and the authorities, one that would be replicated again and again in times of Irish political turmoil in the years and, indeed, centuries ahead.
For one politician, soon to replace Disraeli as Prime Minister, the Fenian operations in Britain were too an outrage, but also proof that the British policy in Ireland was not working. For William Ewart Gladstone, finding an answer to the “Irish Question” would be the defining challenge of his many premierships.
While the Fenians were trying and failing at home and in Britain, their American brethren were being a bit more ambitious.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.